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The Mars Ingenuity helicopter refused to take its fourth flight

Published Apr 30th, 2021 5:19PM EDT
mars helicopter glitch
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter already completed the milestones that its team set forth for it. The three goals were fairly straightforward. First, it had to fly in a Mars simulation chamber on Earth. Check. Then, it had to fly on the real Mars. Check. Lastly, it had to travel horizontally on Mars and return for a safe landing. Check! By the helicopter’s third flight, all of these challenges had already been met, and with its fourth flight, Ingenuity was going to “push the envelope,” according to NASA, and fly for much longer and farther than it ever had before.

Apparently, Ingenuity wasn’t on board with that plan. NASA sent the commands to the small aircraft on Thursday and, as the team usually does as it waits for the long communications delay to catch up to the helicopter, it waited for confirmation that the helicopter had launched, flown, and landed as asked. Unfortunately, the team received a message it wasn’t expecting. The helicopter hadn’t done much of anything and was sitting right where it had been all day. Uh oh.

According to NASA, the data that Ingenuity sent back revealed that it “did not execute its planned fourth flight as scheduled.” But why? NASA has a pretty good idea. If you go back to the helicopter’s first flight attempt you’ll remember that the aircraft failed to transition into flight mode from its pre-flight setting. This resulted in the helicopter just sitting there, and that appears to be what happened during the planned fourth flight as well.

NASA says that data was received from the helicopter that shows that it failed to transition to flight mode and, because of that, the chopper couldn’t take off. The good news here is that, at least as far as NASA is concerned, this odd glitch doesn’t change anything about the plans to continue sending Ingenuity on new and more daring flights.

Via NASA:

An issue identified earlier this month showed a 15% chance for each time the helicopter attempts to fly that it would encounter a watchdog timer expiration and not transition to flight mode.  Today’s delay is in line with that expectation and does not prevent future flights.

NASA will be holding a briefing to “discuss next steps for the helicopter” on Friday, but plans to launch its fourth flight before then. Hopefully the chopper can bypass the glitch and take to the skies. If it does, it will complete a lengthy back-and-forth journey while also snapping photos along its path as a test of its ability to create a high-resolution “map” of sorts. The helicopter will snap images every four feet and, knowing how much NASA likes to stitch images together, we’ll probably see it all at once in the near future.